Japan’s Immigration Policies Put to the Test

Japan’s Historic Immigration Reform: A Work in Progress

Politics Society Work

As Japan prepares to open its doors to foreign labor, Menju Toshihiro, an expert on immigration issues, offers his insights on the historic new policy and the work that remains to be done. 

Japan will embark on a new era in immigration on April 1, 2019, when it officially opens its doors to lower-skilled and semi-skilled foreign workers. Under the amended Immigration Control and Refugee Recognition Act, passed on December 8 last year, foreigners who qualify for the new Specified Skills visa status will be able to enter Japan for the express purpose of working in designated sectors (including agriculture, nursing care, construction, specific manufacturing industries, and food and hospitality services) for a maximum period of five years.

Current plans call for the admission of up to 345,000 workers under the new visa over the next five years. This is not a flood by any means, but given the purpose of the new policy—to address growing labor shortages in Japan’s rapidly aging society—those numbers can be expected to rise.

The policy change has been fraught with controversy, peaking during the final months of 2018. The vigorous debate in the Diet and the media was in itself a refreshing development in a country where immigration has long been treated as a political third rail.

In the following, I examine key features of the recent reform, focusing on three highlights: the new category 1 residence status for lower-skilled foreign labor, the path to permanent immigration via the category 2 status, and comprehensive measures aimed at the support and integration of international residents.

New Five-Year Working Visa

Beginning in April, lower-skilled foreign workers meeting industry-specific language and skills requirements will be eligible to live and work in Japan under the newly established Specified Skills category 1 residence status. The period of stay under a category 1 permit will be limited to five years, and workers will not be able to bring family members.

As Japan’s birthrate and working-age population have declined, acute labor shortages have emerged in a number of sectors, especially in Japan’s outlying areas. In the absence of a legal framework for the admission of foreign unskilled or semi-skilled laborers, the government has attempted to plug the gap by admitting labor through back-door channels—most often as five-year “trainees,” under the Technical Intern Training Program, or as students, who can easily obtain work permits after they arrive in Japan.

Unfortunately, the TITP has become notorious for violations, abuses, and irregularities, including the annual disappearance of more than 7,000 trainees from their assigned “training” sites. The establishment of the new category 1 visa takes a step in the right direction by establishing an above-board system for the admission and employment of foreign laborers.

It remains unclear, however, whether the new system can safeguard against abuses. In 2017, in response to complaints and criticisms of the TITP, the government beefed up protections and oversight, including a requirement that the intermediary “supervising organizations” responsible for accepting, placing, and supporting trainees be licensed by the Ministry of Justice and the Ministry of Health, Labor, and Welfare. Under the new working-visa system, however, supervision and support will be the responsibility of “registered  support entities”—either the employers themselves or privately run support agencies. Without rigorous licensing requirements and oversight, economic competition among these entities could precipitate a “race to the bottom,” resulting in poor working conditions and low-quality support services. To ensure accountability and transparency (widely regarded as inadequate under the TITP), some are calling for public disclosure of third-party evaluations of employers and support agencies, together with measures to provide prospective migrants with objective information about the working conditions and supports that await them in Japan.

Another major question surrounding the new system is the future role of the TITP, which has functioned as a de facto guest-worker program. Under the new system, the government has established admission quotas for each industry, but the TITP sets no such limits. If the training program continues to operate concurrently with the new system, it could render any quotas meaningless. Once the new system is in place, the government should either scrap the TITP or administer it as it was originally intended, as a means of assisting developing countries via the transfer of high-level technical skills.

Since labor shortages are most severe outside of the major metropolitan areas, most of the foreigners entering Japan with a category 1 working visa will doubtless be dispatched to jobs in outlying regions. Unlike TITP trainees, however, visaed foreign workers will be free to move around. The question then becomes how to prevent this human capital from gravitating to the big cities in search of higher wages. One option might be to provide a financial incentive for staying put—perhaps something similar to the grant the government plans to offer Japanese working people to relocate outside of the Tokyo area—while also facilitating transition to the category 2 status, under which foreign workers can continue to live in Japan indefinitely (see below).

Path to Permanent Immigration?

While the Specified Skills category 1 status limits residence to five years and prohibits workers from bringing their families with them, the new system does offer a possible path to legal long-term immigration via the category 2 residence status, intended for workers with more advanced skills. The idea is that category 1 workers could upgrade their status to category 2 if they qualify by passing an examination or meeting other conditions. However, current plans call for implementation in only two industries, construction and shipbuilding, beginning in fiscal year 2021. If the government is serious about attracting foreign talent to fill Japan’s labor gap, it needs to flesh out and expand this system, since the potential for an upgrade in status could be an important inducement to migration under the category 1 visa.

Without the possibility of an upgrade and long-term immigration, the category 1 visa will amount to little more than a guest-worker program, much like the TITP.  Employers, viewing foreign labor as no more than temporary help, will be reluctant to invest substantially in language education or job training. Facilitating the transition to category 2 would encourage such investment.

Ultimately, the survival of Japanese industries that depend on skilled craftsmanship could hinge on a system that allows workers with five-year visas to develop their skills and upgrade their residence status. Today many of these industries are grappling with an acute shortage of skilled production workers. Unless we are willing to invest in the training of foreign labor to fill those jobs, Japan’s vaunted tradition of monozukuri artisanship could ultimately die out.

Support and Integration Policies

In addition to the immigration reforms themselves, the government has announced a package of support and integration measures under the cabinet policy document “Comprehensive Measures for the Acceptance and Inclusion of Foreign Human Resources,” adopted on December 25, 2018. While the media have generally portrayed this as a plan for dealing with the anticipated influx of foreign workers under the new visa program, I believe its significance goes far beyond that.

The fact is that, prior to the adoption of these measures at the end of last year, Japan had no immigrant policies to speak of, despite the fact that 2.6 million foreigners already reside in Japan.

To be sure, Japan had very few foreign residents to worry about up until the 1990s (excluding its large community of Japanese-born Koreans). However, the situation has changed dramatically in the three decades of the Heisei era. In 1989, the first year of Heisei, 980,000 foreigners were residing in Japan. By the end of June 2018, the number had swollen to 2.64 million, roughly the population of Kyoto Prefecture. Yet only now has the government seen fit to develop public policies aimed at ensuring that this rapidly growing segment of Japanese society has access to language instruction, appropriate childhood education, and other important services.

To understand the consequences of such inaction, we need only look at Germany, which also waited 30 years before developing policies to support and integrate its growing population of immigrants.

Faced with severe labor shortages during the rapid-growth period of the 1950s and 1960s, West Germany embarked on a policy of recruiting foreign workers under a series of bilateral agreements. During the 1960s and early 1970s, a particularly large number of Turkish migrants flowed into West Germany under a guest-worker program (terminated in 1973). Family reunification rights were introduced in 1974,  contributing to the growth of a large community of Turkish immigrants. However, it was not until the enactment of the 2004 immigration law that the German government adopted policies and programs to ease the integration of these immigrants into German society through language instruction and other services. Unfortunately, three decades of neglect had already taken their toll, and that negligence is widely blamed for the social problems plaguing the Turkish community, including poverty, crime, discrimination, and tensions with the ethnic majority.

In Japan, similarly, roughly three decades have passed since the government began loosening immigration restrictions, first by making long-term visas available to Latin Americans of Japanese descent, and then by making use of the TITP. In addition, tens of thousands of foreign women have been authorized to reside permanently in Japan as the wives of Japanese citizens, and the challenges facing these immigrants and their children have been virtually ignored.

By 2005, some 65,000 foreign residents were classified as spouses of Japanese nationals for immigration purposes. About 80% of these were women of Philippine citizenship. From these marriages—many of which ended in divorce—were born thousands of children of mixed parentage, who have faced daunting obstacles to integration into Japanese society, including language deficits, poverty, prejudice, and discrimination. The same can be said of the children of the Latin Americans of Japanese descent. In the absence of government support programs, many of these children fell by the wayside and are now young adults living on the margins of Japanese society.

In this context, the government’s “Comprehensive Measures for Acceptance and Integration of Foreign Human Resources” should be viewed as the first step toward atoning for this 30-year sin of omission. But a much wider discussion is needed to assess the damage that has been done to date and reach a consensus on the kind of society we want to build going forward.

What It Means to Be Japanese

This brings us to my final topic: What kind of society do we, as a people, visualize for Japan in the years and decades ahead?

Given current demographic trends and projected labor demand in the coming decades, Japan may eventually need to accommodate as many as 15 million foreign nationals, including migrants from countries in Africa as well as Asia. Can we make a place for all these people in Japanese society?

Ultimately, the question comes down to what it means to be Japanese. I would not be so presumptuous as to attempt to define Japanese identity in a brief essay such as this. I would, however, like to use a recent experience to illustrate my own ideas on the subject.

On a recent airline flight to Japan, I watched a video titled “Welcome to Japan,” which offered a brief introduction to traditional Japanese culture. Interestingly, the very first historical figure highlighted in this introduction was the Chinese priest Jianzhen (688–763), known in Japan as Ganjin. Jianzhen, explained the narrator, not only laid the foundations for Japanese Buddhism but also introduced such essentials of traditional Japanese cuisine as soy sauce and miso. The video then moved on to the role of Zen Buddhism, which was transmitted from India via China and had a transformative influence on Japanese Buddhism and Japanese culture as a whole.

The point is this. The history of Japan is marked by repeated waves of foreign influence, each of which stimulated innovation and development and ultimately became an integral part of Japan’s own distinctive culture. In my view, this active acceptance and creative assimilation of foreign influence is at the very heart of what it means to be Japanese.

There is much to be deliberated and fleshed out regarding Japan’s emerging immigration policy, from our basic vision for the future to the specifics of education, healthcare, and other services. That conversation has only just begun. I look forward to a multifaceted debate representing a wide range of viewpoints, including those of employers and employees, policymakers and historians, Japanese citizens and foreign nationals.

(Originally published in Japanese on January 23, 2019. Banner photo: Indonesian technical trainees package romaine lettuce for shipment at a Kagawa Prefecture farm. © Jiji.)

immigration foreign labor nationality TITP